116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — After a 26-17 upset win at then-No. 6 South Dakota State last week, No. 16 Northern Iowa (4-3, 2-2) hosts No. 3 Southern Illinois Saturday.
Picked fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll, the Salukis’ (6-1, 4-0) only loss came week 2 in an FBS buy game at Kansas State. SIU has won five straight games, including wins against South Dakota State and North Dakota, which were ranked second and 22nd at the time.
The Salukis have been led by their offense and quarterback Nic Baker. Baker has thrown an MVFC-best 18 touchdowns this season and is third in the league in passing yards..
The Panthers lead the all-time series 20-17 and narrowly missed out on a road win this spring at Saluki Stadium, falling 17-16.
Here’s three keys for UNI against SIU.
1. Fresh defense
Baker is more than an accurate passer. His ability to extend plays with his feet to buy more time and find open receivers has proven to be a high-level skill that’s challenged MVFC opponents.
Keeping Baker within the pocket and forcing him to make throws at the top of his drop while pass coverage is still intact will be critical.
While the onus will largely be on the UNI defense to keep him corralled, the Panthers’ ability to run the ball and win time of possession can keep a depth-challenged defense fresh enough to reckon with the Salukis’ quick-footed QB.
2. Stick to the script
Earlier this season, UNI coach Mark Farley described how good teams develop tendencies. In their four wins this season the Panthers’ tendency has been a run-heavy approach.
As quarterback Theo Day continues to develop after not seeing action his first three years in college, the script should continue to say run. Especially since Dom Williams, Bradrick Shaw and Vance McShane have been able to keep themselves fresh as a result of the committee that’s been shouldering this season’s workload.
Now is not the time to get cute. Sticking to a run-first approach and letting Day continue to build confidence with pass plays set up by the run has proven itself to be UNI’s best brand of football.
3. Extra-special teams
While it’s improved, UNI’s offense has shown through seven games that it will not become a juggernaut this season. Combine that steady offense with a defense that’s having its depth tested by injury and the ability for the Panthers’ special teams units to not only play sound, but make a difference, is amplified.
A career day from kicker Matthew Cook and three of five punts inside the 20 last week by Nate Murphy became the catalyst for the upset against the Jackrabbits. Cook and Murphy continuing to be at top form will weigh heavily on whether or not UNI makes the playoffs.
UNI vs. Southern Illinois
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. (CT)
Live stream: ESPN+
Prediction: UNI 27 Southern Illinois 21